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War of the Worlds is as bad as Doctor Who

Plus: the BBC’s adaptation of War of the Worlds is deeply sad. Will we ever again see a faithful, honest, politics-free adaptation on the BBC?

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

Edwardian England deserved everything it got from those killer Martian invaders. Or so I learned from the BBC’s latest adaptation of The War of the Worlds (Sundays). Everything about that era, apparently, was hateful, backward and ripe for destruction: regressive attitudes to women and homosexuality; exultant white supremacy (cue, a speech from a government minister on the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race); a general prevailing bone-headedness and stuck-upness; stiff, stuffy, relentlessly brown clothing with superfluous belts; and as for those ridiculous bristling moustaches…

Still, I don’t think H.G. Wells would have been totally appalled by this travesty of his 1898 potboiler. Wells was, after all, a man of the left who would later write of Stalin: ‘I have never met a man more fair, candid and honest’, and who flirted with most of the politically correct causes of his day, from Fabianism to anti-imperalism. Early in the book, he rails against the ‘extermination’ of Tasmanian Aborigines by ‘European immigrants’, asking: ‘Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’

No, the bigger problem with this version, adapted by Peter Harness, is that apart from the obligatory feisty, scientifically advanced, liberated heroine played by Demelza from Poldark (Eleanor Tomlinson — not that I’m at all complaining about her prominence, by the way) you really don’t much care for anyone because they’re all bloodless throwbacks to an era we’re encouraged to despise. A bit like with Doctor Who, the function of history is no longer to help us engage sympathetically with the past, but merely to act as a foil to our current, so-much-better world where toxic masculinity, racism, homophobia etc. have been largely eradicated.


The book’s unnamed narrator, for example, has become a wimp called George whose response to any action situation is to stare, frozen and bedazzled, like a rabbit caught in the alien headlights while his progressive mistress does all the heavy lifting. About the only other sympathetic character, we are taught to think by the finger-wagging script, is Robert Carlyle’s ill-drawn scientist whose only distinguishing feature (apart from his amazing, Kew palm house-style private observatory: how did he get that, you wonder) is the fact that he may be gay.

It’s very sad. As a child, I remember thinking how wonderful it would be when movie special effects reached such an advanced stage that all your favourite sci-fi, fantasy and war novels could be recreated on screen in such a way that it would be like watching it happen for real. What I hadn’t factored in was the countervailing rise of identity politics which now means that every film and TV product is required to be so earnestly on-message that pure escapism is pretty much verboten. A faithful, honest, politics-free adaptation of a period novel is something we’ll probably never see again — certainly not on the BBC. Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy Lord of the Rings, I think, was the last major screen work to slip through the net. Can you imagine how it would look if it had been made now rather than in the early Noughties?

More out of duty than interest, I watched Emily Maitlis’s evisceration of Prince Andrew on last week’s BBC Newsnight special. Yes, it was a scoop of sorts to get a minor royal to lumber into this elephant trap; yes, Maitlis did a good job of repeatedly jabbing him with a pointed stick once he was stuck there. But I still found the whole exercise smugly self-aggrandising and slightly emetic.

I hold no brief for Prince Andrew: like many of us I’ve long thought of him, if at all, as charmless, thick, entitled, slightly dodgy, inconsequential. But the way the BBC has been crowing about it, you’d think it had performed the nation — and the cause of global justice — some signal service, when all it gave us, actually, was a seedy, prurient, gotcha takedown of a figure of no great importance, for the delectation of anti-monarchists and the post-#MeToo angry brigade. All the wrong people think it mattered greatly; almost no one who is normal gave a damn.

My top viewing tip is Greatest Events of WWII in Colour (Netflix): solid, non-revisionist military history, narrated by Robert Powell, with sensible, enthusiastic talking heads (such as the splendidly Boys’ Own-y James Holland, Max Hastings and so on) telling you exactly what happened, when and why, with gripping, colourised footage that brings it all home. This is the sort of bread-and-butter stuff the BBC used to do so well, but now finds distasteful. Is it any surprise so many of its viewers are migrating elsewhere?


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